The question “Do you love your country?” can be used both as a badge of honor and as a cudgel for division. Patriotism, or love of country, can be a glue that contributes to a more perfect union or it can be a cancer that kills the very cells that make the union possible. Patriotism comes in many forms. Its most destructive, often nationalistic forms erode the very foundation upon which the Beloved Community is built and suffocate efforts to form a more perfect union. As a result, redeeming patriotism represents a vital part of creating the atmosphere in which a more perfect union and the Beloved Community can breathe.
Soon after its release in 2015, the Broadway musical Hamilton became a smash hit and a cultural phenomenon. Even though the story of our nation’s founding is more than two hundred years old, the themes of the musical are timeless and relevant. In brilliant fashion, writer and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda managed to recast the story of America’s birth through the life of one of the nation’s most unsung founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. With the lyrical power of hip-hop and the spoken word, the musical retells the story of our nation’s founding in a way that resonates with Americans of all backgrounds. The broad popularity of Hamilton signals that many Americans yearn for a more honest and inspiring rendition of our history told in a contemporary fashion.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to see the musical when it premiered in Washington, DC. By this time, I had already listened to the soundtrack enough that I had almost every song memorized. Finally attending the live musical was riveting—in particular, seeing a cast that mirrored the racial diversity of modern-day America play our nation’s founders, who were almost entirely white and male. In a thought-provoking way, Hamilton inspires a deeper pride in America without triumphalism, and with edifying truth-telling. It brings to life the long-standing fights and paradoxes of our nation’s past that persist in our present. Daveed Diggs, the actor who played Thomas Jefferson in the original cast, captures this. “Putting brown people at the center of the story, you are saying we built this country too,” Diggs said. “If you watch this musical and you feel a sense of pride inspired by the America that you see, you should be inspired to take action to make what you see become true in real life.”
For America to realize its fullest potential, the musical reminds us, we must redefine and reclaim a healthier version of patriotism that must always be tied to the project of building a more just and inclusive America. This requires overcoming the temptations of nationalism and embracing a more honest rendition of our history.
Nationalism is an unhealthy and often dangerous perversion of patriotism. When patriotism starts to bleed into nationalism, it becomes poisonous and destructive. A healthy patriotism is animated by a love for one’s country and an ongoing commitment to realize the country’s deepest ideals. In the context of the United States, this includes an abiding belief in equal justice under the law and a commitment to liberty and justice for all. In contrast, nationalism is often animated by a hatred for and fear of the other. Any “patriotism” that is based on a hierarchy of human value, viewing and treating some lives as more valuable than others, easily devolves into destructive nationalism.
Destructive nationalism is often promulgated through fearmongering and mistruth, conflating patriotism with xenophobia and a tolerance of or appeals to white supremacy. A patriotism that is blind and ahistorical poisons us all and, at worst, reasserts the lie that some Americans are the “true Americans” and that some Americans are worth more than others. For example, on Independence Day 2020, then president Trump castigated people who sought the removal of Confederate flags and monuments as left-wing extremists who are not “trying to better America, but to end America.” Later, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump inveighed, “In the left’s backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just and exceptional nation on earth. Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins. . . . If the left gains power they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other constitutional freedoms.” These incendiary comments exemplify how Trump dipped into the deep well of white resentment, fear, and anxiety, equating critique of America’s faults and sins as a betrayal of patriotism rather than an affirmation of the ideals that bind America together.
The rise of destructive nationalism is not just an American phenomenon; it has become a global contagion. “The end of the Cold War didn’t kill nationalism,” notes Lepore. “Global trade didn’t kill nationalism. Immigration reform didn’t kill nationalism. The internet didn’t kill nationalism. Instead, arguably, all of these developments only stoked nationalism.” And the COVID-19 pandemic further fanned the flames of nationalism as many countries became more nativist, protectionist, and xenophobic in response.
For Christians, the cross wrapped in the American flag, or any flag, is dangerous. Many Christian theologies in America promote a “God is on our side” mentality that conflates and confuses the aims of the church with the aims of the state, just as across the globe seemingly religious ideologies have undergirded and fueled nationalism. We must resist trying to co-opt God into a political party or into our narrow national interests. We are a nation under God; we sometimes act as though we are a nation in which God is under us. We are called to always remember our source. As the Gospel of John puts it, for God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son (3:16). Nowhere in scripture can we find justification for “for God so loved America.” Faith also can’t be reduced purely to politics. As Jim Wallis regularly puts it, “Our faith should inform our politics, and not the other way around.” Nor can faith be completely apolitical, as our faith has profound social, political, and economic implications for our lives.
A passionate commitment to living out our nation’s best ideals and fulfilling our nation’s most sacred promises is built on something entirely different from nationalism. Rather than blind loyalty to a nation that is rooted in fear, redeeming patriotism starts from a posture of steadfast love for community and country. This is not a demeaning love requiring superiority to others or a sentimental love that ignores people’s hurts and pain. What makes a nation strong and worthy of pride is an aspirational and resilient love that values and celebrates the pursuit of shared ideals for the common good.
Redemptive patriotism must be rooted in a love, to borrow from the words of Paul, that seeks to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Love of country must be resilient and mature enough to identify and celebrate what is good while not denying those parts of our history or within our present reality that are harmful and evil.
Redemptive patriotism understands and even celebrates that those who protest and critique America are often demonstrating the deepest expression of patriotism. In helping to lift up a mirror to force this country to confront and correct its own contradictions and shortcomings, they offer America the opportunity to right wrongs and to more fully realize its promise and ideals. Thus, a healthy form of patriotism insists on both critique and correction for a country to grow and change as we strive toward a more perfect union. Theodore Johnson echoes this sentiment in a New York Times Magazine article about Black patriotism, arguing, as the subtitle puts it, that “for Black Americans, loving the country and criticizing it have always been inseparable.” He writes, “For a people who loved a nation that did not love them back, a new brand of patriotism was required—expansive enough for anger and questioning of the nation as well as adoration and respect. Political psychologists refer to this as constructive patriotism, and have found that it leads to increased civic participation, at times in demonstration of dissatisfaction with the country and at times in reclamation of its principles.”
The More in Common research finds that the real gap in patriotism is not among the races but between political ideologies. Overall, the study finds that conservatives tend to define America by its perceived strengths and that progressives tend to emphasize its perceived weaknesses. Johnson rightly points out that “Black Americans, of course, do both. Black patriotism does not hold that America is irredeemably racist—it asks if America is interested in redemption. It is forward-looking and informed by history, meshing optimism about the nation’s prospects with a realism about its struggles with racial equality.” Yes, Black Americans have long practiced redemptive patriotism as a matter of both pride and survival, and all of America can learn from this inspiring witness.
To counteract and cure the cancer of destructive nationalism, we must become more vocal about our love for America. In 2020, with the coronavirus crisis and the police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, this became an exceptional challenge—as communities of color and Indigenous communities were infected and killed by the virus at a disproportionate rate and the whole world witnessed the sheer depravity of Derek Chauvin’s white knee crushing the breath out of Floyd’s life for nearly nine excruciating minutes. And yet love for America and its ideals is something I embrace and try to practice.
America, with its vibrancy, ingenuity, and grit. This country, with the resiliency of the American spirit. America, where at our best we have defended human rights and sowed seeds of democracy around the world—even if at times done unevenly or counterproductively. America, I love your multiculturalism and diversity, where you can see almost the entire world reflected in so many of our cities. America, I love that you have provided refuge and solace for some of the world’s most persecuted and oppressed people, even if this commitment has been halting. America, I love the genius of your entrepreneurship and inventiveness, the scholarship and excellence of American higher learning. America, I love the beauty and breadth of your landscapes—from the rugged alpine mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the sandy, sun- scorched beaches of California and Florida to the awesome grandeur of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon to the breathtaking glory of the Rockies and the bustling cosmopolitan cities of the Midwest and Northeast. America, I love the music and art forms you have invented, the brilliance of jazz, hip-hop, rock-and-roll, country, and Go-Go—the often-unheralded music out of my own Washington, DC. America, I love your pioneering democratic system of checks and balances, divided government, and constitutional rights. And despite your major setbacks, I love your onward march toward forming a more perfect union and becoming a more inclusive and just democracy. These are just some of the reasons to preserve this country, to celebrate it, to strengthen it.
In building the Beloved Community, one way to redeem patriotism is to look at that which holds primacy in the Christian tradition, the sacrament of communion. There we are offered some timeless insights. Communion is a shared sacrament that unites Christians across a vast diversity of denominations and doctrines. Those who take communion are instructed by the words of Jesus, who taught his followers to first search themselves and repent for anything that has separated them from being in right relationship with God, one another, and creation. Communion calls us to remember who we are and whose we are as we engage in corporate repentance and rededication to God’s word and will.
In a similar vein, for a country that has fallen woefully short of its ideals and promises, acknowledgment and repentance for past wrongs forms a crucial starting point for transformation and for developing right relationship with one another. This is not about navel gazing or national self-loathing, but instead it is an ever-present call to strive to form the Beloved Community. Repenting for our failures allows us to create more authentic space for that more perfect union to be realized, to celebrate the ideals that make America worth loving and honoring.
Redeeming patriotism requires reframing our love for the best of America’s ideals and aspirations. It requires understanding that the right to critique America is part of the brilliance of America. It requires calls to make America be America for all people. It requires that which communion offers: repentance, restoration within one’s community, and a willingness to change. Redeeming patriotism requires greater willingness to have courageous and civil conversations about the very ideals that make us love America. It refuses pointless arguments over who loves America more. Redeeming patriotism requires rejecting the false and dangerous idol of destructive nationalism and its often-seen companion of heretical religious power agendas, which feed on our attachment to blood and soil rather than to shared ideals and the common aspiration to build an America in which everyone is valued and respected and can thrive.
This is an excerpt from A More Perfect Union chapter 8: Redeeming Patriotism.